Skip to main content

Full text of "Caleb Cushing, a memoir"

See other formats

i-^^JLy' P* . fc 


Caleb Cushing 

A Memoir 

Claude Moore Fuess 

Boston, Massachusetts 







, Ca. 



Do Not Take From This Room 

Andover Room 



Memorial Hall Library 

Andover, Mass. 01810 


3 1330 00268 3021 

Caleb Clashing 

A Memoir 

Claude Moore Fuess 

Boston, Massachusetts 



From the Proceedings of the 

Massachusetts Historical Society 

Volume 64, October, 1 93 1 



ON FEBRUARY 10, 1859, Caleb Cushing, a citizen of 
Newburyport, was elected a Resident Member of this 
Society. At that moment he was the leader of the Democratic 
minority in the Lower House of the General Court, where, with 
unusual patriotism, he was content to serve after having long 
occupied a conspicuous position on the stage of national 
affairs. He was still much in the public eye, for he had just 
been defeated by Henry Wilson for the United States Senate 
and had dared to defend the right of German and Irish aliens 
to prompt naturalization. It was rather remarkable that 
Cushing should have been admitted at that period to a Society 
whose members have usually been conservative in their opin- 
ions. His open friendliness to the South and his vigorous 
condemnation of abolitionists made him persona non grata 
in many Boston houses. Yet Bostonians forgot their preju- 
dices and honored him for his talent and accomplishments. 

Unpopular though he was in certain quarters, Cushing was 
undeniably a leading statesman of the Commonwealth. Born 
on January 17, 1800, he had entered upon a political career 
with an equipment seldom equalled in his generation. From 
a long line of distinguished forbears extending back to Mat- 
thew Cushing, his immigrant ancestor, who landed in Boston 
in 1638, Caleb Cushing inherited a sound body and the physi- 
cal strength to endure hard work and fatigue. He graduated 
from Harvard at seventeen, studied law, and returned to the 
college as a tutor when he was only twenty. His social 
position was unquestioned, and the family fortunes were such 
as to relieve him from any embarrassment about money. 
Finally, he was lucky enough early in his progress at the bar 
to attract the attention of Daniel Webster, whose political 
heir in a sense he became. 

In appearance, Cushing was a tall, robust figure, with bright 
restless eyes, a resolute jaw, a dignified bearing, and handsome 

features. At an early age he displayed an amazing capacity 
for sustained labor, together with a faculty for intense concen- 
tration on the subject immediately at hand. Through sheer 
perseverance and systematic methods of study he acquired a 
vast fund of information even on obscure topics, and his store 
of legal knowledge was the wonder of his associates. His 
extraordinary ability as a linguist stood him in good stead 
on several occasions. He wasted no time in frivolity, or 
even in recreation, but, by force of mind and will, made him- 
self into something of a literary man and, aided by his rich 
and resonant voice, into an orator comparable with Edward 
Everett and Wendell Phillips. His skill as a logician com- 
pensated for his lack of imagination. Although he was more 
critical than constructive, his thinking did not paralyze his 
resolution, and, when the moment for decision arrived, he 
could act as well as reflect. Everybody who came within his 
range conceded that he possessed a first-rate mind. 

Temperamentally, Cushing was disposed to be autocratic, 
relying on force and reason rather than on conciliation. Dis- 
daining to be suave, he was often exceedingly, even irritat- 
ingly, positive. He seldom wavered between two courses of 
conduct, but usually espoused one with a militant partisan- 
ship. Although he was highly ambitious, he seems to have 
been intellectually courageous, and he refused to resort to 
those arts which are supposed to lead to popularity. Largely 
because of his lack of tact, he was greatly misunderstood; 
and even now he is sometimes mentioned half sneeringly as if 
he had been a renegade or a traitor. This opinion does an in- 
justice to a man who customarily fought his enemies in the 
open, who held to his beliefs in the face of party denunciation 
and social ostracism, and who was as loyal to the Union as 
was his mentor, Daniel Webster. If Cushing had possessed 
the social graces of Franklin Pierce, he could have been Presi- 
dent of the United States. As it was, he was saddened by 
missing his loftiest ambitions. 

Thus equipped physically and mentally, Caleb Cushing 
entered politics at a time when the slavery question, after 
some years of abeyance, was being reopened by the Missouri 
Compromise of 1820; and with its agitation and ostensible 
settlement, his public life almost exactly coincided. In the 

beginning, he met it as Webster did — with a profound con- 
viction of the iniquity of human servitude, joined with the 
feeling, natural enough to a lawyer, that the bargain made 
between North and South at the establishment of the Federal 
Union could not easily be repudiated. Like Webster, more- 
over, he could not see how breaking up the Union would 
eradicate slavery. In the end, however, Gushing went farther 
than Webster and came, without intending it, to be regarded 
as a typical " Northern man with Southern principles." 

A brief summary of his career will help to explain its enig- 
mas. For more than half a century, Caleb Cushing was in 
the public eye. Following an apprenticeship in the Massa- 
chusetts General Court and a disconcerting defeat for Con- 
gress, he broke down in health and sailed for Europe, 
returning late in 1830, fully restored and ready for the fray. 
After a long series of deadlocks had ended in the failure of 
another Congressional campaign, he was again nominated in 
1834 and elected, partly because of Webster's intervention 
in his behalf. For four terms, as the Representative from the 
Essex North District, Cushing grew in power and reputation. 
His fortunes as one of the founders of the Whig party were 
linked with those of Daniel Webster and Edward Everett, 
both older than he, and his advancement depended largely 
on their success. In Congress he took an active share in 
the floor discussion, toiled indefatigably on committees, and 
showed himself to be facile in debate and convincing in argu- 
ment. He was a very useful member. In 1840, he worked 
faithfully for Harrison's victory and was evidently marked 
by the new President for preferment. Up to this date, Cush- 
ing's progress had been normal and comparatively uneventful. 
And then Harrison unexpectedly died, and his mantle fell 
upon the shoulders of John Tyler, of Virginia. 

When Henry Clay at that moment assumed the dictatorship 
of the Whig Party, both Webster and Cushing resented it 
and rebelled. Webster, in defiance of Clay, remained as Sec- 
retary of State when the other members of the cabinet re- 
signed; while Caleb Cushing helped to organize the " Corpo- 
ral's Guard," a small group of Tyler Whigs in the House of 
Representatives. For his adherence to Tyler's failing cause, 
Cushing was nominated as Secretary of the Treasury, but 

the Senate, controlled by Clay men, refused confirmation. 
Finally, on May 8, 1843, during the Congressional recess, 
Cushing was rewarded by an appointment as Commissioner 
to China. 

As the negotiator of the Treaty of Wang Hiya (July 3, 
1844) with the Imperial Chinese Government, Cushing added 
luster both to himself and to the slowly fading Tyler ad- 
ministration. When he reached New York on January 1, 
1845, Polk had been elected President, and Tyler, although 
still in the White House, was discredited. At the outbreak 
of the hostilities with Mexico, Cushing, who had cherished 
military aspirations, aided in raising a regiment, was chosen 
its colonel, and was later promoted to be brigadier general. 
Although he was never under fire, he led his brigade over the 
National Highway from Vera Cruz to Mexico City in the 
wake of General Scott. During his absence, he was nominated 
by the Democrats for Governor of Massachusetts and, against 
the popular Governor George N. Briggs, increased the vote 
for his party by more than 9000 over the previous year. The 
campaign was enlivened by the clever but unjust satire of 
Lowell's Biglow Papers, in which Cushing figured as " Gin- 
eral C." He was again defeated in 1848, running third to 
Briggs, who was reelected, and to Stephen C. Phillips, the 
Free-Soil candidate. 

In January, 1 851, as a Representative in the General Court, 
Cushing, together with his followers, refused to vote for 
Charles Sumner as United States Senator. Never having 
pledged himself to the coalition between Democrats and Free- 
Soilers, he was not bound by the action of the Democratic 
caucus, which had agreed to accept Sumner. Through his 
recalcitrancy, Cushing became even more obnoxious than be- 
fore to the radical abolitionists, who rejoiced when Sumner 
was finally elected by a margin of one vote. Later in the year, 
Cushing became the first mayor of Newburyport, then re- 
cently incorporated as a city; and in July, 1852, he was ap- 
pointed by Governor Boutwell as Judge of the Supreme Judi- 
cial Court of the Commonwealth. During his few months 
on the bench he became conspicuous for his knowledge, indus- 
try, and fairness. 

Cushing entered aggressively into the presidential campaign 

of 1852 as one of the little group who plotted to make Frank- 
lin Pierce the Democratic nominee. On the floor of the 
Baltimore Convention he shrewdly directed the Pierce forces, 
and, when the New Hampshire man was elected and inaugu- 
rated, it was to be expected that Cushing would be in his 
cabinet. As Attorney-General for four years, Cushing proved 
to be the ablest incumbent of that office in our history. He 
was the first holder of that position to devote himself ex- 
clusively to its responsibilities; and he established a series 
of precedents which have been indispensable to his succes- 
sors, rounding them out by a full discussion of the functions 
and traditions of the attorney-generalship. His opinions, 
filling three volumes, have been repeatedly quoted as authori- 
tative on many subjects. In Pierce's cabinet, Cushing ex- 
ercised great influence, and several of the administration 
policies can be traced to him. Thrown into contact with 
southern statesmen, he became more tolerant of their views on 
slavery; indeed one of his opinions anticipated the doctrine of 
the Dred Scott decision. 

Cushing did not like the young Republican party, which he 
described in 1857 as " a jumble of freaks and follies." When 
Pierce's term was over, he came back to Boston, where he was 
again elected to the General Court and, although the Demo- 
crats were in a minority, was conceded an intellectual leader- 
ship. At the Boston Union meeting (December 8, 1859) in 
Faneuil Hall, he joined Everett, Levi Lincoln, and others in 
denouncing John Brown's raid. He was chosen Chairman of 
the Democratic Convention held at Charleston in April, i860. 
Accepting the Dred Scott decision as final, Cushing, though 
impartial in his rulings as presiding officer, favored the anti- 
Douglas faction; and when the delegates, after disbanding 
in confusion, reassembled at Baltimore, he appealed for har- 
mony. After it became evident that the Douglas element was 
in control, Cushing led the " bolters " who nominated Breck- 
inridge and Lane. He felt that the South had been badly 
treated and, even after the election of Lincoln, urged his 
fellow-northerners to make concessions. President Buchanan 
sent him on a mission to plead with South Carolina, and he 
was actually in Charleston when the Ordinance of Secession 
was signed. In a mood of despair, he reported to the Presi- 


dent and, when war was declared, reaffirmed his loyalty to 
the Union by offering his services to Governor Andrew. To 
the latter's enduring shame, Cushing's request for a com- 
mission was refused. From then until his death, Cushing 
voted the Republican ticket. 

During the Civil War, Cushing, as one of Lincoln's informal 
legal advisors, rendered important aid to the Department of 
State. He resumed his profitable law practice, making not- 
able arguments before the Supreme Court of the United 
States. Meanwhile he transferred his residence to Falls 
Church, Virginia, only a few miles from the national capital. 
In 1868, he was appointed by President Johnson as a special 
Minister to Colombia, and spent some weeks in Bogota fur- 
thering negotiations for a ship canal across the Isthmus of 
Panama. In the proceedings leading up to the Treaty of 
Washington in 1871, Caleb Cushing was a leader; and Presi- 
dent Grant selected him as one of three counsel to represent 
the United States at the Geneva Conference for the adjust- 
ment of the so-called Alabama Claims. It was largely Cush- 
ing's astute brain which guided the deliberations, arranged 
a basis of compromise, and secured a favorable decision for 
his country. His ability to speak French fluently astounded 
the representatives of other nations and brought prestige to 
the American delegation. 

Cushing's declining years were darkened by what to him 
was a culminating tragedy. His highest ambition was to be 
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. 
On January 9, 1874, President Grant nominated him for that 
position, and his qualifications were so obvious that no op- 
position was expected. But attacks upon him soon developed 
from his enemies, especially from Senator Aaron Sargent, 
of California, with whom he had once quarreled, and it was 
soon apparent that he could not be confirmed. He withdrew 
his name and accepted the post of minister to Spain to which 
he had already been appointed before the vacancy on the 
Supreme Bench occurred. He remained in Madrid until 1877, 
when he resigned and settled down in his boyhood home at 
Newburyport, where he is still remembered as an austere, 
rather lonely person, who wanted to be loved but did not 
understand how to win affection. He died January 2, 1879, 

on a night as stormy as his life had been. He was interred in 
the New Burial Ground, in Newburyport, and a memorial 
service was held in that city on October 8, 1879. 

Cushing married, in 1824, Caroline Elizabeth Wilde, 
daughter of Judge Samuel Sumner Wilde of the Supreme 
Judicial Court of Massachusetts, by whom he had no children. 
In spite of his wife's persistent ill health, the marriage was 
very happy, and her early death in 1832 left him inconsol- 
able. He was devoted to his parents and to his brothers and 
sisters. Caring little for money as an end in itself, Cushing 
earned a large income whenever he was willing to accept 
retainers. His tastes were very simple, even abstemious, and 
he was indifferent to luxury. 

Caleb Cushing was not precisely a contributing member of 
this Society. So far as I can ascertain, he never attended a 
meeting, although, on May 8, 1873, through William Gray 
Brooks, he presented to it " a manuscript volume, finely il- 
lustrated with engravings, of the genealogy of the Cotton 
family, prepared for Mr. Cushing by the late H. G. Somerby." 
This interesting book is still preserved in the archives. At 
the first meeting after Cushing's death, President Robert C. 
Winthrop remarked: " He was too busy, and too often absent 
from home, to take part in our historical work, or even to 
attend our meetings." Winthrop did, however, pay a sincere 
tribute to Cushing, and his eulogy was supplemented by 
George B. Emerson and Charles W. Tuttle. On February 13, 
1879, Mr. Tuttle was designated to prepare a Memoir for 
the Society and went so far as to examine some of the Cushing 
papers. When he died on July 18, 1881, he had made little 
progress, and no one seems to have been appointed as his 
successor. Now, many years later, the duty of refreshing the 
recollections of posterity has devolved upon the present writer. 

Perhaps, however, it is easier today to recognize Caleb 
Cushing's notable accomplishments than it would have been 
fifty years ago. Studying him with a mind free from contro- 
versial prejudice, we can perceive that he was an able lawyer, 
a thrilling orator, a shrewd diplomatist, an almost omniscient 
scholar, a versatile and far-sighted statesman, and an honest 
man. He made his mistakes, for which he paid in full, and 
he died disappointed. But he is not forgotten. Other men 


who seemed to their contemporaries more spectacular have 
vanished into oblivion; while Caleb Cushing's more sub- 
stantial qualities have given him a permanent niche in his- 
tory. His memoir will appear belatedly in our Proceedings, 
but at a time when the vindication of his much-maligned 
character is conceded by well-informed historians. 



Andover, Massachusetts